Taking a year to work, learn and travel between high school and the first year of college, known as the “gap year,” continues to catch fire even in these economically challenging times.
The American Gap Year Association, founded in 2012, estimates that between 30,000 and 40,000 U. S. students annually take a year between high school graduation and freshman year of college, and that number continues to climb 20 and 30 percent each year.
Why? It could be because of the proliferation of travel programs, consultancies, coaches and service organizations appealing to motivated students who want to attend college, but are aching for something different: to test-drive themselves away from the academic structure to see where their true gifts lie or a desire to challenge themselves through independent travel, following the footsteps of a parent or older sibling.
But parents might worry that students may lose their desire to learn, or their ability to master new knowledge by stepping away from school for a year. True?
Not according to a former dean of admissions at a top-tier liberal arts college. “The prevailing wisdom used to be that kids are going to lose their hard-earned study skills if they take a gap year. In fact, the opposite is true,” says Bob Clagett, former dean at Middlebury College in Vermont, now co-leading the Gap Year Research Consortium, which includes institutions that attest to the benefits of taking a gap year, including Duke, Harvard and Florida State, among others.
Gap year students, even those with lower academic achievement in high school, are more likely to graduate from college with higher grade point averages than those who go straight to college, say researchers at the consortium.
These Mt. Lebanon graduates took a gap year and are glad they did, for many reasons. They were lucky enough to have supportive parents who believed independent travel on one’s own is an education in itself.
“I was not as excited about going to college as my friends,” admits Lucy Nass, a 2013 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate. It was her mother who planted the seed of a gap year; her dad often travels overseas for industry, and speaks two languages. At a gap year fair in Washington, D.C., in 2012, Nass discovered Where There Be Dragons, which organizes unique travel experiences for gap year students. Experienced instructors accompany groups of 12 or 13 to one or more of 19 countries for three-month cultural and language learning programs. A caveat: These programs are not cheap. Price range for each of next year’s three-month programs is $13,815 to $18,450.
Nass signed on for three months in rural Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, living with host families in simple, rustic quarters. The group hiked, took language and history classes, and constructed a solar-powered composting toilet for a self-supporting women’s weaving cooperative. The second leg of her travel with Dragons was in southeast Asia—Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka—in an “analog’ forest (a forest undergoing intensive restoration). She learned environmental stewardship, outdoor cooking, and studied the culture, its medical care and religions; she rose at 5 a.m. to sit in meditation during a five-day retreat.
“It was humbling experience,” she relates. “Living in southeast Asia was the ‘extra’ experience I needed to shift my view of the world. I had to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
The gap year, she says, “gave me time to figure out who I am without the confinements of the academic structure.” Nass graduated from Allegheny College with degrees in Spanish and global health, and went for certification to teach English as a foreign language. She now lives and teaches English in Medellìn, Colombia.
Paul Butler, another MLHS 2013 grad, found himself feeling “a bit burnt out” toward the end of junior year with intensive coursework, and was considering his post-high school options. With his parents’ encouragement he too visited the Gap Year Fair in D.C., looked at Where There Be Dragons, and eventually signed on.
Some parents of his age contemporaries were “slightly horrified,” he says. But Butler got good recommendations and encouragement from his teachers; he was accepted at Brown University on deferred admission.
His Dragons group experience took him to Cambodia, China, and Laos for two and a half months, staying with host families, seeing the sights, hiking and exploring. Then Butler headed to an organic vineyard in New Zealand to work 15 hours per week for room and board through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF.)
Butler spent about four months Down Under, returned home, and worked as an SAT tutor until he headed to Brown where he studied public policy. He now works as a strategic researcher in the New York office of the Change to Win Coalition of the Federation of Labor Unions. All in all, Butler says he grew a lot more confident because of his overseas travel and work experience. He offers two suggestions: “If you are thinking of college, definitely apply and defer admission. There’s not much of a downside; you won’t miss much.” He recommended the WWOOF experience “as a fun way to work and travel without much money.”
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Not all meaningful travel experiences have to take place overseas. Ask Rachel Calvetti, a homeschooled 2017 high school grad who signed on for five weeks of backcountry hiking, backpacking and wilderness camping in Wyoming through A Purposeful Year organized through the Coalition for Christian Outreach, headquartered in Pittsburgh. No cell phones (the instructors carried them for emergencies), no social media, and 12 students and five instructors hiked six or seven miles per day, carrying all equipment in their packs in the rain and the dark. They chatted in fire circles by night and worked together by day to carve out and set up a campsite. They learned wilderness first aid and how to read a topographic map. Calvetti learned the Tyrolean Traverse one evening—using a zipline to cross a raging river. And she learned how to really depend on and trust her companions. “The experience gives you a perspective on what you really need vs. what you want,” she says. “Our needs are really simple: food, water, a place to sleep and people to care about.” Calvetti returned from her backcountry adventure ready to attend Waynesburg University to study nursing, a career she’s considered for a long time.
“I wish every college student could do this,” she says. “It’s not just about you. It’s about becoming purposeful in caring about other people.”
COSTS vs. BENEFITS
Pete DiNardo, Mt. Lebanon High School social studies and history teacher, was the beneficiary of a meaningful post-college travel experience with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “It was transformative,” he says.
The steep expense of some organized gap year experiences puts them out of reach for many students. “Sadly, this is becoming more and more the case,” he says. ”But I have also had the Rotary Club sponsor kids.”
Still, Dinardo says “I find that the gap year veteran enters college far better prepared and far more ready to learn with a focus. In a world that demands being able to work and live in diverse settings, gap years take that privileged person and most often immerses them in a never-before-experienced setting. Handling that stress and new reality is a sign that one can handle change and that one honors and desires diversity.”